NEWSLETTER #261 December 2007 House-Building Home Page

New House Building: Money Saving, Convenience and Healthy House Tips

Geothermal Heating and Cooling



  1. Introduction
  2. Geothermal Power vs. Geothermal Exchange Heating and Cooling
  3. The Basics of Geothermal Exchange Heating & Cooling
  4. Cost of Installation compared to Traditional Systems
  5. Maintenance & Longevity
  6. Summary and Other Considerations
  7. Subscription Details
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This month's newsletter is focused on geothermal heating and cooling. We will cover the mechanics of how they work, the advantages and disadvantages, the cost of installation, longevity, maintenance and the cost of operation compared to more traditional heating methods.

As usual with all of our newsletters we will provide useful links for our readers to find out more detailed information about each of these subjects throughout our article.

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3.0 Geothermal Power vs. Geothermal Exchange Heating and Cooling

During our investigation of geothermal power, we discovered that there are several different approaches to generating power, heating and cooling your home from geothermal sources. For example the residents of Iceland are able to heat their homes and offices by taking advantage of the Earth's underground geothermal energy. Steam is piped to each home from deep in the earth as well as using it to generate electricity. In the United States a place called the Geyers in California generates 750 MW's of electricity from 21 separate power plants and 350 wells that produce steam to run steam turbines.

The average consumer is unable to take advantage of this type of geothermal power. Typically they do not live in an area that has steam-producing wells and they do not have the funds to develop them as well. We are going to focus our discussion on Geothermal exchange heating and cooling that the average consumer can take advantage of. If you would like to learn more about the worlds geothermal power plants including those in the US, we have included several web sites for your information below.

Geothermal exchange heat pumps will use the earth as either a heat source or a cooling source to help heat and cool homes. These systems are typically referred to as GSHP's (Ground Source Heat Pumps). There are both open loop systems and closed loop systems. These systems use a variety of materials including water and propylene glycol, alcohol or methanol to pump through these systems and either heat or cool homes. There are also ASHP (Air Source Heat Pumps), which will extract heat or deliver heat to the air. If you live in a climate that is either very cold or very hot, the ASHP systems will be less efficient than the GSHP's.

Both the GSHP's and the ASHP's are available for consumers to purchase and utilize to heat and cool their homes.

Some Useful Links:

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The Basics of Geothermal Exchange Heating & Cooling

Ground Source Heat pumps move heat from a source location to a sink location. During the heating season, your home is the sink and the source is the earth. During the cooling season, your home becomes the source and the earth becomes the sink for the heat transfer. These systems consist of two loops, one inside the home or building and the other outside in the earth or as in the case of an open loop system in a well, stream or lake.

In open loop systems, the fluid used to transfer the heat to the sink (outside) does not return. As mentioned, usually water from a well or nearby stream or lake is used and circulated through the system. Heat dissipation is accomplished by using cooler water from the water source to transfer the heat to from your home.

Closed loop systems can either be vertical or horizontal. In the case of a closed loop vertical system, a well or borehole is used to circulate the fluid in the pipes. The fluid will re-circulate from the home to the well and back again. Heat transfer from the piping can be improved by ensuring that there is good bonding between the pipes in the well or borehole and the surrounding rock or soil.

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Horizontal closed loop systems are laid out in a horizontal fashion usually below the frost line to avoid freezing and to provide improved heat transfer. The amount of piping required ensuring that your geothermal heat exchange system works efficiently depends on a number of factors. These include: Heating or cooling requirements; size of the home; depth of the piping, the earth's temperature at the level of the pipes, and the absorption and dissipation rate of the surrounding rock and soil.

The links below provide additional information about how these systems work along with several basic pictures to give you an appreciation for the construction techniques.

Some Useful Links:

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Cost of Installation compared to Traditional Systems

The cost of geothermal systems will vary a great deal depending on were you live, the climate you live in, and the size of the area to be heated or cooled. Some web sites indicate that a cost estimate from $5000 to as much as $20,000 is possible for installation costs.

If you are wondering how can the cost of installation vary so much, there is a simple explanation. The installation of the closed loop system, whether it is a borehole or a horizontal system is usually the most expensive part of the system. The piping must be installed below the frost line were the earth's temperature is constant. For example in the northern US and Canada , this means at least 5 feet below grade, while in southern climates, were there is no frost to contend with, systems do not have to be buried as deep. Next the type of material you are dealing with also determines the cost. Rock needs to be blasted, while loam and clay can be easily removed with large excavation equipment. Boreholes must be drilled with specialized equipment as well. Note that the ductwork and air handling inside your home are the same for all forced air systems, so these costs are not considered from a comparison perspective.

Operating costs will vary widely as well depending on the type and size of home you have, the efficiency of your geothermal exchange unit and temperature you have your home heated or cooled to. We were unable to find any definitive studies of the comparison of operating costs, however several of the web sites we have included in the links section indicate that these systems are more economical than traditional heating and cooling systems. Geothermal exchange systems can save an average family from $400 to $1400 per year, which amounts to 35% to 70% of their heating and cooling bills for the year depending on how you heat and cool your home today i.e. gas furnace, electric air conditioning, electric furnace etc.

Some Useful Links:

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Maintenance & Longevity

System life for geothermal heat pumps runs an estimated 25 years for the internal systems inside your home and up to 50+ years for the ground loop systems installed outdoors.

The ground loop systems are a series of pipes that are placed in the ground. Once properly installed there is no reason for any maintenance or longevity issues to become an issue. They are not exposed to the environment and there is no chance for vandalism. Proper installation requires that they be placed below the frost line, which is an important consideration. Always take into account the worst case in terms of the frost line for the area in which you live. There is no external outside compressor or moving parts to be concerned about as well, which is significantly better than traditional air conditioning systems.

The indoor units are much the same as traditional systems in terms of longevity and maintenance, however the units are smaller and there are less moving parts that may need service. If you are using a forced air system to transfer the air throughout your home, these systems will require similar maintenance to that of a traditional forced air system minus the gas heat exchanger system.

Some Useful Links:

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Advantages and Disadvantages

There are numerous advantages for consumers when they install a geothermal exchange system. Aside from the operating cost savings, which are not insubstantial, there are other advantages that many consumers may want to consider.

The most significant one is the contribution to reduction of pollution of the earth's atmosphere, both from lack of consumption of natural gas and coal as well as a decrease in overall net energy use. There is no flue or chimney to build or operate and there is less risk of fire and no chance of carbon monoxide poisoning from your exchange system.

Unlike traditional air conditioning systems there are no outdoor compressors or exposed systems. Everything is either indoors or under the ground. As a result there are no worries about vandalism, damage from the environment and you have less moving parts to repair and maintain. In addition, since there is no outdoor unit, there also is no noise to be concerned about to bother you or your neighbours.

Depending on were you live, there may be subsidies available from local governments to help with the cost of the installation of your geothermal exchange system. For example the Government of British Columbia offers a provincial tax rebate on ground source heat pumps for residential use.

The major disadvantage is due to the construction cost. Most systems will cost more than the traditional heating system mainly due to the loop systems that must be installed outdoors. As mentioned previously, the cost can vary a great deal depending on the soil and rock conditions around your home.

In addition you must have the available land to construct an outdoor closed loop system. Horizontal systems take up more space than vertical systems. Small urban lot sizes do not easily support horizontal systems since there is insufficient land area to deploy the horizontal piping that is required.

Some Useful Links:

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Summary and Other Considerations

Geothermal heating and cooling systems will save the consumer anywhere from 30% to 70% of their annual heating costs depending on whether they compare to force air natural gas systems or electric heating systems. There is a higher initial cost for installation and most of this increased cost is attributed to the outdoor loop systems, both closed and open that must be installed. The expense of installation depends to a great degree on the soil conditions that exist around your property.

Maintenance and longevity of these systems are about the same for indoor components as for traditional systems, however when installed properly the outdoor components are generally good for 50 years or more.

There are some locations around the US and Canada were consumers can take advantage of Geothermal heat naturally from the earth, however the majority of these have been developed commercially and generate significant amount of electrical energy for consumption. Geothermal exchange systems or heat pumps are becoming more and more common as consumers become aware of the energy savings and the pollution avoidance advantages of Geothermal exchange systems.

Aside from reduced operating costs and pollution avoidance, geothermal exchange heating and cooling systems also do not require chimney flu's and there is no chance of carbon monoxide poisoning. Since there is no outdoor unit, there is no noise to bother neighbors and there is nothing for vandals to bother.

Some states and provinces offer subsidies and other benefits for installing geothermal exchange systems. Check with your local government for details. Most vendors will be aware of these subsidies and should be able to assist in this area.

Geothermal systems require space on your property for both vertical and horizontal loop systems. Before investing always confirm with your supplier that you have sufficient space and there are no restrictions in terms of local permits that may be required.

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